Maybe a Girl Who Loved the Ocean

by

10/19/2001

158 liberty st ny ny 1000

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

It is Rosh Hashanah. Today I learned that my father was named for his grandfather, a pious Ocean Avenue Jew my father does not remember. Still, he carries the name: a mysterious, permanent burden attached to so many of the tribe. We are named only for the dead, never the living, so as not to risk confusing the angel of death, or robbing the living of their soul. The many names of God–who is very much alive in this high, holy season in New York–are so sacred that we can’t even say them out loud or print them in books. The names of the dead, on the other hand, are everywhere.

I try to talk to my family in Queens about the devastation downtown but it is their position that bombing should be done, and if people in those countries to be bombed don’t like it they should leave and go to Tajikistan or wherever, and too bad for them, and we wind up yelling at each other across the frontier of the kitchen. We are no longer talking names, though I ache to whisper them as they come at me, from lampposts and fences, television and web, newsprint and magazine. Gennie, Mario, Thomas, Marion. Lorraine, Brian, Gloria, Lisa. Michael. Touri. Klaus. Victor. But all I can do is swipe at my eyes with a paper napkin and plead for more patience, less death.

I have been absorbed in the lists of names, each sting of letters like a run of notes we replay all our lives. First thing we learn to write, last thing written about us: immortality lies, after all, in the distribution of names. Printed in bold type in the gossip columns or in a caption beneath a glossy magazine snapshot; engraved on plaques and trophies and diplomas; affixed a Dewey Decimal value and sometimes even a price tag. But these names I’m reading are of the sudden dead, the spontaneously here-one-minute-gone-the-next dead, and with them come the dazed eyes and dull fingers of the ones who loved them, who miss them, taping and stapling and gluing them all over my decimated city, beneath the ominous and unseen roar of fighter planes overhead.

I am keeping them. The lists. Somewhere in my nest of drawers there is also a passenger list from Flight 103, downed over Lockerbie, Scotland. Also one from Flight 800 to Paris (I knew someone on that one). To this I will add these new lists of the dead in the Twin Towers, in the Pentagon, and on the airplanes that flew into them. It is mesmerizing work, conjuring the lives that went with them. Zoe Falkenberg: a girl with a witchy, magical name, daughter of liberals, maybe a girl who loved the ocean? Dan Shanower: cornfield patriot, loyal friend, passionate father to Dan, Jr.? Georgine Corrigan: a vivacious widow on a trip around the world? The firefighters, the officers, the EMTs, the bankers, the secretaries, the busboys. I am morbidly drawn in.

Weems, Williams, Bingham, Hansen, Olsen. I read what facts are known, study the faces on the posters and in the papers but it is the names that stick. I think of the AIDS memorial quilt that passed through my university and how the grief that stitched the names of the dead into cotton and linen was somehow freed by the motion, the plummet and draw of the needle in and away, in and away, each gesture a tidal current, a breath. And in the end, a name, a blanket of remembrance.

I have a blanket in my head. Here are some of the names stitched in: Constance Coiner, my brilliant, fiery literature professor who died on Flight 800. Kendra Webdale who was pushed in front of a subway. Amy Watkins who was stabbed as she went home. The known and the unknown. A given, and a family. A first and a last. Letters like tiny sticks tilted this way and that, angles and crossbeams, aligned and ordered. Names are not words like terror, murder, courage. Names are not ideas. They are markers of civilization, dominion over oblivion.

Around here we are used to tripping over tongues, stumbling on the names of our taxicab drivers and our doctors, our shopkeepers, our neighbors and our friends. In this city, one door can lead to Bernstein, Picorelli, Singh, Angelopoulous, Martinez, Mohammad and MacDonald. The trail of knowing begins with a name. But now we who know better than anyone that a name alone is only a doorway to the vast corridors and haunted rooms of a human life—now we are left with nothing but.

When the lists are complete they will stretch the length of my arm, my body, my building, unspooling like ribbons of sorrow across the nation and the world. Already they are embedded in databases of Red Cross volunteers and printed on newsprint that will dissolve like the papers that flew from the towers and fluttered down like autumn early, crisped at the edges and bearing more, everywhere, more. A blanket of names like six thousand doors to rooms we will never enter, and it is this grief exactly, the blunt grief of an empty room, that I feel as I go down the lists and try to remember as many as I can.

Why do I study them? What am I looking for? Maybe it is an act of atonement, a way of appeasing the guilt of gratitude, for everyone that I know is, miraculously, still alive. Maybe it is a way to concretize, humanize the generic dead by affirming the human instinct to be recognized, to be known, which is to say, to matter.

Some of these names, I know, will return to my lips next week during Yom Kippur, when it is time for the mourner’s kaddish and I am asked to remember the departed of the past year and to utter their names before the gathered congregation. A small token: the shape, the taste, the song of a name. It is not nearly enough, but it is all that is left to offer.

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